San Franciscans are a jaded lot when it comes to electric cars, what with Tesla Model Ss clogging the city’s pricier precincts along with a forest of Leafs, Nissan’s battery-powered vehicles for the middle class. Not to mention the Chevrolet Volts, BMW i3s, and Ford Focus Electrics plying the highways and byways of the Bay Area.
But jaws dropped when I drove down the streets of the tony Laurel Heights neighborhood on Monday in the Stella, a tadpole-shaped electric sedan covered in solar modules and powered solely by sunshine.
The Stella can go nearly 500 miles on a single charge. That’s almost double the range of the Model S we passed, though you rarely would even need to plug the car into an electrical outlet given that its 1.5 kilowatt solar array continuously charges the lithium-ion battery pack—as long as the sun is shining, of course. A solar panel system on a suburban rooftop, in contrast, typically generates three to five kilowatts of electricity.
There have been other solar-powered electric cars—for nearly 30 years, the World Solar Challenge in Australia has showcased the technology. Those cars, however, are mostly small, stripped-down, single-seat vehicles built for speed. They are most definitely not street legal.
The Stella, though, is billed as the world’s first solar-powered family car, carrying four people in a low-slung cabin. Lift up the solar panels on the car’s fishtail trunk, and there’s room for groceries. The Stella, which has a top speed of about 75 miles per hour, is packed with high-tech novelties such as a steering wheel that expands in your hands to signal that you’re exceeding the speed limit or contracts when you’re driving too slow. To activate the turn signals, you just squeeze the appropriate side of the steering wheel.
Just don’t expect to find the car in your local showroom anytime soon. It was built by Solar Team Eindhoven, a group of students at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, to demonstrate that a solar-powered car may look like something straight out of Blade Runner but can hit the road today.
The Stella meets Dutch safety standards, and the team drove the car from Los Angeles to San Francisco along California’s coastal highway, powered almost entirely on sunshine. (The car had plenty of juice, but the team plugged it in once just to be safe.)
“We think it’s possible to make these cars in production and to get them in the showroom in five to 10 years,” said Lex Hoefsloot, the manager of Solar Team Eindhoven, as he stood by the Stella parked outside the stately residence of the Dutch consulate in San Francisco. “It’s a really big dream but we think it’s possible because the technologies used aren’t exactly new.”
The solar modules were made by SunPower, the Silicon Valley company, and the lithium-ion batteries come from Panasonic, which supplies Tesla.
The Stella weighs 855 pounds, and its 15-foot-long, five-foot-wide body is made of carbon fiber. The extremely aerodynamic shape maximizes its driving range. It helps to be limber, though—the car stands just under four feet tall and getting in through gull-wing doors requires the driver and passengers to bend and slide into the rough-hewn cabin.
During a brief test drive, the car also showcased technology from Dutch chip maker NXP that allows the Stella to communicate with other cars—in this case, a red Model S driving nearby—as well as with traffic signals, stop signs, and objects on the road that had been outfitted with beacons.
As we drove down the street, a video screen in the car warned that an upcoming stoplight would turn green in six seconds, that there was roadwork being conducted down the road, and that an ambulance was ahead. “We’re trying to bring in as much smart intelligence as possible to the car,” said Lars Reger, NXP’s vice president of research and development.
Hoefsloot conceded the cost to develop the Stella prototype was “enormous.”
“But we think it’s possible to make it as affordable as a regular car,” he said.